Everyone is exhausted... so why won't we rest?

We've known for years that we are overwhelmed and risking burnout, we endure hurry sickness and we are all so very, very tired — so why won't we stop?

There is one thing health experts, life coaches and psychologists all agree on, and that is that we are all too busy. And regardless of what it is that we’re rushing around doing, the result is that we’re tired, second-guessing our performance and also wondering, is this it? Is all the rushing and the stress worth it for the few brief interludes of fun we manage to squeeze into our weeks? Chances are for most, the only thing you feel like doing is opening a bottle of wine and binging a box set by the time the weekend rolls around. It’s addictive, it distracts you from work for a bit, but mindless escapism doesn’t equal the rest our bodies and minds are pleading for.

But I practice meditation, you say. Or you’ve got your gym routine down. It’s a tough pill to swallow in this self-care obsessed world, but a Headspace subscription, the Pomodoro technique or a standing desk aren’t going to fix your burnout. Because we are our own worst enemies.

Irish psychologist Siobhan Murray has written a book that aims to make people confront the behaviours that lead to burnout. For example, we all have to make sacrifices, but that has escalated to a stage where it is seen as normal to completely abandon healthy outlets like exercise and socialising when we’re under pressure with work. Siobhan points out that our personalities can contribute to burnout - how many of us would instead place that blame solely on our bosses and office culture? We’re blind to how we are helping to dig ourselves deeper into this hole, making it all the more difficult for us to climb back out when we realise too late that we’re at our lowest ebb. “Limiting self-beliefs are beliefs you have about yourself and about others that limit how you live your life,” Murray writes. These beliefs are so deeply entrenched we may not know they exist at all, or how much influence they have on our lives. If somewhere in your brain you think, for example, that your boss doesn’t think you are good at your job, even if you don’t realise it, this self-limiting thought will affect how you think and cause you to forsake things like self-care. It is why no matter how many times we try a new wellness routine or to live a calmer life, we fail and fail again. “It’s self-imposed thoughts, your thoughts that can keep you from making changes. So your limiting self-beliefs can be responsible for keeping you in a state of negativity and hold you back from taking charge of your life.” We’ve all been there, the workload is piled too high, and we’re putting out fires, and feeling completely out of control. That’s burnout. It’s more familiar than you realized, isn’t it?

Countless careers have been made from this very idea that someone, somewhere has figured out a way to get through life successfully without feeling completely drained. Marie Kondo’s focusing on sparks of joy, Gretchin Rubin knows what makes us happy and what makes us tick, and Gabrielle Bernstein wants us to believe that the universe has our back. There are infinitely more I can mention. And while they’re all onto something, there’s a reason we’re stumbling in our attempts at self-improvement. It is that we are not truly working on those beliefs, on ourselves, and trying to plaster over the cracks with mindfulness, organisation, minimalism and more.

But I think if we were all really honest with ourselves, we would realize that we’d rather throw money and energy at a superficial solution like bullet journaling or meditation, than to address what’s going on in our heads. It’s so much easier to think that clutter is holding us back, than it is to blame our own feelings of self-doubt. Or to hope that learning to meditate for a few minutes a day will be an antidote to years of running ourselves ragged.

It makes sense that it is the beliefs we’ve internalized about modern life that is causing us to continue on the treadmill. We believe nobody takes sick days or a lunch break (they do) so don’t either. We believe work must be tough (it doesn’t have to be) so we plough on. So what have we done to convince ourselves that we don’t need to truly rest?

We all know we need eight hours sleep. We grow up being told that bedtime is a hard and fast rule. And yet, in adulthood we rob ourselves of sleep. Everyone does it. We’re all absolutely wrecked and that’s the norm. It is because we have convinced ourselves that sleep is the same as doing nothing. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Leaving the house without a charged phone is a nightmare scenario. But we are willing to rush and race through every day in a body and mind that is running on fumes.

Sleep isn’t doing nothing; it is when our brains prepare for the next day. The cells in our brain shrink when we are asleep, so that fluid can wash out the toxins that build up between cells throughout the day. Without sleep, those neurotoxins build up and damage cells, over time contributing to major diseases. “Imagine your brain is like your teeth, just as your teeth need to be brushed to get rid of plaque, your brain needs to be cleaned too. During the day when your brain is working hard having conversations, processing information or making decisions, it is forming its own form of plaque, which needs to be cleaned away each night in order to function at its optimum levels the next day,” Siobhan says. “Sleep also plays an important part role in your physical health. For example sleep is involved in healing and repairing your body, when you’re ill, the non-medical advice is to rest and get some sleep to allow the body to repair and heal itself.”

We have ignored this simple truth because we are so averse to stopping, to being idle and unstimulated, to letting life pass us by. We can’t stop scrolling through Instagram late at night, we can’t switch off the TV, and we can’t resist bringing our laptops to bed with us. Because we think we do nothing in bed. We have convinced ourselves that the very act we will spend most of our lives doing, the drowsiness that envelopes us no matter how hard we fight, and the wonderful feeling of waking up after a great night’s sleep, means nothing at all. When really it is the starting point of everything, the starting point to our day, to self-care that finally works, and to our recovery from the pressure of modern life.

This article by Róisín Healy orginally appeared in the March issue of Irish Country Magazine.

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